America Needs Education Reform

WASHINGTON – Here is the basic proposition: America’s national secondary education system bleeds very badly. We are doing poorly and most international comparisons show it. Those who are hurt the most are the poor and the minorities, because lack of decent education for them is a passport to nowhere: no education means no decent jobs and no upward mobility. End of the road.

More broadly, America does not stand a chance to stay internationally competitive, unless its public education system matches the quality of its competitors. So, education is a domestic social issue and at the same time a key policy area that will determine US future standing in the world. Properly crafted, this could (in fact, should) become the central issue of the national policy debate in the years to come. 

Who will lead on education?

The question then is: if this is indeed so crucial, then who is going to lead? The Republicans, badly in need to broaden their national appeal, here have a ready made issue. They could grab it and run with it, with likely positive upside for them at every level. In this piece I explain how. But education could also become –and this would be even better for America– a powerful bipartisan cause.

So, let’s review the broader political scenario and see where education fits within it.

Republicans, the accidental 2010 winners

The Republican Party may have indeed received a new chance to lead in the aftermath of this recent, mid-term elections success. But the consensus is that this has been mostly an anti-Obama, anti-incumbent vote, rather than a clear endorsement of an alternative, freshly minted, well defined and broadly embraced Republican policy agenda. The anti-tax insurrection led by the Tea Party Movement helped the Republicans, as the Tea Party People, primary fights notwithstanding, found more sympathetic interlocutors and greater ideological affinities among the Republicans.

Republicans: just lucky this time 

So, all in all, while the 2010 electoral results may look good for the GOP, there is no guarantee that these gains will be permanent. The Republican Party, if it wants to be a serious national contender any day, and not just when the Democrats stumble, needs to develop a genuine national appeal. At the moment it does not have it.

A white, middle class party

And here is one of the key reasons. Let’s go back a minute. At the time of the 2008 campaign, thanks to gavel to gavel TV coverage provided by C-SPAN, we could get a pretty close look at the two national conventions. As the TV cameras rolled and captured all the assembled delegates, the most striking feature of the Republican get together was the participants’ almost total homogeneity: overwhelmingly white, middle aged and more or less middle class looking.

Democrats, diverse, but at a price

In contrast, the Democrats gathering was a lot more diverse, with a variety of age groups and ethnicities represented –and lots of women. Now, one could argue as to the level of real intellectual and political cohesion among the more diverse Democrats and how much does it “cost”, in terms of delivery of political favors and promises to this and that group, to keep all this together.

But, the reverse, that is an almost entirely white, middle class and not so youthful group as your typical Republican base, is not that promising a foundation for a national political force.

Republicans: the need to broaden their appeal

The simple point is that either the Republican Party develops a credible agenda that can genuinely appeal to the young, to women and to the various groups still unfortunately called “minorities” (mostly Blacks and Hispanics), or it is condemned to be itself a minority force, occasionally (as now) beefed up by a strong anti-incumbent feeling that has helped them as the Party in opposition; but without any deep national appeal, and thus without the hope to galvanize broader segments of the American society with a message that can be interesting and energizing for a variety of social groups; while not betraying basic Republican principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility and pro growth policies.

Simply stated, it is inconceivable that the Republican Party can create and sustain in the long term working national majorities, having conceded that it will be mostly a white, predominantly male, middle class party, getting only insignificant Black, Hispanic and relatively small women support, because the party has not much to offer to these large segments of the electorate.

Avoid the pork barrel trap

Having said that, the Republicans want to avoid the trap the Democrats fell into. The Democrats broadened their constituencies by becoming the party that wins favor on the basis of its willingness and subsequent ability to deliver goodies to all “the disadvantaged”. In so doing, the Democrats devised public policies aimed a helping a variety of constituencies, deserving and not so deserving. The outcome of all this public largesse has been the creation and fueling of an immense entitlement/subsidies/favors granting national machinery so huge and so costly now that it is leading America to national insolvency. The Republicans need to create appeal; but they need to do so with a real message of reform, fairness and inclusiveness, not tied however to the old fashioned customs of open ended financial support to this and that.

Here is an opportunity: promote “Education Reform”

One key area in which the Republicans can choose to lead is true education reform, as education is finally coming to be recognized as “the real ladder” that, depending on its conditions, may favor upward mobility or prevent it. Indeed, education now more than ever before is the key ingredient that makes things possible. Lack of education makes everything more difficult, or virtually impossible; especially for the underprivileged children who cannot rely on established family status and connections to get ahead.

For this reason, promoting reform leading to good education for all and thus for the poor and the underprivileged, beyond the obvious advantages for all the recipients, can become a powerful tool to lessen the enduring social and racial disparities. Fighting for good education means fighting for empowerment, for real upward mobility and for genuine inclusiveness, not to mention the aggregate economic benefits for America deriving from an enhanced national human capital.

Until now social responsibility was understood as welfare, propping up those who do not have the means. Whereas, with true education reform, millions of children may be able to aspire to jobs and careers believed to be, as a matter of course, beyond their reach. Education may help achieve the qualitatives changes that welfare programs in practice do not deliver.

With education, a real “Opportunity Society”

It is abundantly clear that America’s public education system is mediocre to very bad, with the poor and minorities paying a disproportionately high price, as they usually get the worst kind of education.

A believable new version of the American Dream, a new concept going beyond the “welfare approach”, and something that the Republicans could credibly embrace and extol, is the vision of a renewed “Opportunity Society”, predicated on education reform and thus real access for all to a good national education system that fairly rewards all those who make a genuine effort to get ahead.

From a political standpoint, reform minded Republicans stand to gain by exposing the negative role played by the close minded teachers unions which happen to be key allies of the Democratic Party. For once, it is possible to show that the “progressive forces”, in fact, are not progressive at all, as they tend to be against reform that would increase teachers’ accountability and down the line improved performance. 

Democrats want to help the underprivileged; but they falter on education

It would not be difficult to expose this contradiction. Without a good public education system, the poor and the minorities that the Democrats say they want to protect have no ladder to climb out of poverty and thus they are automatically excluded from the Opportunity Society and its rewards.  The Democrats traditionally promote and protect welfare programs aimed at shoring up the disadvantaged. But they are not focusing on the one thing, education, that can best help the disadvantaged to get out –for good– of their perennial second tier status. (More on this later).

Embrace education reform

The Republicans, in turn, can fight the “good fights” against taxes and big government all they want, but not much will happen in terms of the social advancement of those at the bottom of American society, unless good, competitive public education is offered to their children. It is clear that nowadays, even with the most business friendly tax system, “hard work” alone, without the benefits of a good education, will not get you very far. In America, the avenues to rewarding employment, the good jobs connected to the global economy, belong to those who entered at a very young age the quality education fast track. All the others, few exceptions aside, cannot even be called “losers”, as they never had a chance to even enter the game.

Education is the new divide

From this perspective, education has become the new social and economic divide. In the past, America had statutory unfairness in the form of legally sanctioned segregation. Mercifully, all that is long gone. But, in practice, if most Black children do not have access to good education, their equal rights do not mean that much, as these rights in the real world do not translate into equal opportunity.

Impossible to have a genuine economic competition when so many lack the tools

Traditionally, the Republican Party has been the party of individual responsibility and support for enterprise. Yet, it should be obvious that, if Republicans are indeed “for the individual”, it should be stipulated that any individual should have at least the chance to enter the competitive arena without huge and unfair handicaps for which they are not responsible. And, among many, lack of education is a key disadvantage, imposed on a young person by the provision of an inadequate public service. While we can blame responsible adults for their conduct, it is unfair to blame them for the handicap of the bad education/no education they were given as children. It is clear that a child is not responsible for the bad schools he/she is forced to attend.

Back to segregation?

And yet bad schools have horribly lasting consequences. We know that, once education is denied in the key formative years, subsequent remedial action is both rare and difficult to deliver. So, if poor children are deprived of a good education, they are more or less condemned as adults to a life of underachievement.

In this sense, with this systemic, irresponsible neglect of public education, by default we have allowed the return of a de facto segregated environment in which the place you were born becomes the most significant predictor of your future achievement.

If you were born poor in America, in a poor neighborhood, you will have sub par education. If you are lucky you will earn a diploma that is virtually worthless. If not, you’ll be a drop out. In both cases the chances for the uneducated of advancing in this world, in this new knowledge society that requires computer skills and numeracy for most jobs, are close to zero.

In America now “birth is destiny” 

If America has become a country of denied upward mobility, a country in which “birth is destiny”, since public education can no longer be an equalizer, then we have retrogressed; and we have denied to millions real access to the American Dream predicated on the notion that “here in America everybody has a chance”. From being the country “where all is possible”, this becomes the country in which this optimistic statement is true only for the privileged classes. Others need not apply. And this places us on the same level of many Third World societies that we Americans lecture on proper ways to achieve progress, fairness and modernization.

Republicans ignore this growing divide at their peril

If the comfortably middle class Republicans ignore this enormous education problem, while congratulating one another on the good fortune that allows them either to live in rich areas with good public schools or to have the money to send their children to private schools, this myopic view will be reflected in the narrow appeal of their party and in the composition of the delegates at the next Republican Convention: more of the same white, middle class, probably even older citizens.

Being pro-education is being inclusive and pro-growth

But the issue of support for real education reform should not be inspired just by electoral calculations. It should be genuinely embraced as a good cause for all those who want to see a true blossoming of creativity and enterprise in America. Improving education is a blessing for all those who end up benefiting from it. But it is also good for the society that is energized and enriched by the nurturing of more human talent, and by the consequent unleashing of new productive and innovative forces enabled by new knowledge and abilities until now virtually off limits to so many citizens.

At the same time, the aggregate effects of a bad or mediocre national education system are becoming painfully obvious, with clear consequences for our overall competitiveness and ability to attract capital, innovative talent and new enterprise. Simply stated: bad education, in the long run, equals under performing society.

The consequences of bad education

The aggregate results of a mediocre education system are in full view. While of course America can offer top of the line private education for those who can pay and some good public education to some of its children, the broad national averages, as they include a bit of everything, are disturbingly bad. Just a few days ago, the OECD sponsored “Program for International Student Assessment”, (PISA), comparative scores, developed after the administration of standardized tests to high school students in many countries, were announced.

These test scores show the US at best below the middle of the pack among developed countries and in some areas towards the bottom. Shanghai in China shines and so do Singapore and other Asian economies, including Korea. Finland and other Nordic countries are also very close to the top. Not to mention next door Canada, significantly ahead of America by most measures.

US: towards the bottom in international high school student rankings

America, until yesterday revered as the center of world innovation, as a whole does rather poorly. This comparative scoring that measures American high school education against a large group of developed and developing countries is a depressing yet very real picture of the underachievement of our national education system. It is also truly worrisome as an indicator of current and future national economic competitiveness. Hard to think that much good will happen to a country with a mediocre to bad education system.

How much will it cost to fix education?

So, it is established that education is a compelling domestic and international issue that should be focused on. The next issue, of course is: “Assuming that we are all on board, how much is this going to cost”?

Not an insignificant detail, this one, at a time of spiraling national, state and local debt. And, if we are talking about huge increased budgets for education, there may indeed be philosophical resistance in a Republican Party that seems to have rediscovered the virtues of fiscal frugality.

Money important; but not the key issue

Well, here we may have a bit of good news: this is not about money. Or at least we can say that money is not the key issue. On average, it seems that there is little or no correlation between the amount of money spent and actual student achievements. If we look at aggregate figures comprising education budgets, total spending per pupil is not a predictor of higher or lower academic standards.

In New Jersey high budgets, low achievements

New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, speaking in Washington at the Annual Summit of a group called Excel in Education at the beginning of December, provided a vivid illustration of a New Jersey education system crippled not by lack of funds but by obtuse attitudes of teachers, administrators and their backward looking unions. At the end of the day, very high per pupil spending in New Jersey amounts to some of the worst national academic scores.

Much of the same could be said for Washington, DC and for many other school districts around the nation. (In Washington DC, there was an attempt at serious, drastic reform led by feisty Chancellor Michelle Rhee. But, after three years Rhee had to leave her job following the electoral loss of Mayor Adrian Fenty who had appointed her, giving her full authority to devise and implement reforms in one of the worst public school systems in America).

At issue: bureaucracy, lack of innovation, perverse incentives

The basic problem, it seems, is not so much in the total amount of money spent, but in the overall organization of education and in the disincentives created by the system for talented people to go ahead and choose teaching as a rewarding profession. Within the predominant parameters, the rewards are small and pay is bad. The real money in the education budgets is for administrators and superintendents. All this needs to be changed. And it will be tough. While New Jersey may be an extreme case, the national average is not that different.

The Unions are a problem

However, in this dismal picture, here is the opportunity for the Republicans, and for that matter for the Democrats as well, if either of them wanted to grab it. The real fight nowadays is not about understanding what works and what does not. Of course there is always room for didactic improvements, new methods, experimentation and so on. But we do have many examples of successful schools that could be replicated on a broader scale. We have a pretty good idea of what can be done to get good teachers, good schools and high achieving students.

Education is a political issue: underperformance is rooted in the preservation of a power structure inimical to good result

From this picture, it emerges that the real issue –the blockage- in education is political. We have a bad, intellectually close minded,  inward looking system that prevents best practices from being introduced and spread around in most schools. Most under performing teachers have entrenched, bureaucratic attitudes about their work that, by design or by default, guarantee mediocrity or worse in the class room. The dominant unionized contractual arrangements make it difficult for people with new ideas and real talent to thrive. Advancement is by virtue of seniority and there is little correlation between proven ability and pay increases. So, being a teacher in America is an unimaginative, union job.

So, here is a worthy political battle with a worthy political prize: the shaking up of the entire public education edifice in America with the goal of vastly improving access to good education, thus reinstating real opportunity in a society de facto sharply divided between the educated and the non educated. A society that, because of bad practices in education, condemns millions of children to a life of underachievement, thus depriving them and the nation of their potential contribution.

Education as a bipartisan issue? Why not?

The Republican Party could lead this fight. For that matter, the Democrats could join in and do the same. In fact, if both national parties could join forces in an effort at serious education reform, I see no downside. For sure, politically the party that has the most compelling, reasonable plan would gain more. But the education reform issue can and ideally should become a bi-partisan cause.

Political disadvantage for the Democrats

However, in this the Democrats would start with a huge handicap that the Republican do not have. The large teachers unions are traditional allies of the Democratic Party. Serious reform minded Democrats would need to take on the unions, in the same fashion as Republican Governor Christie did in his speech at the Excel in Education mentioned above. However, the big difference is that, as a Republican, Governor Christie clearly has no problem attacking the Democratic leaning unions. In attacking them, he exposed the damaging results for the children of New Jersey of a bureaucratic, union controlled, education system; while at the same time attacking a powerful bastion of Democratic Party power.

For the Democrats to truly espouse education reform, they would have to get on a collision course with their traditional allies. Thus they may be far less inclined to do so.

The good work of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

In all this, praise should be given to the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Duncan is a Democrat, serving a Democratic president. And yet he has managed to start a true reform process aimed at shaking up the system, despite the resistance of the teachers unions and the entrenched bureaucracies. Duncan is a passionate yet grounded and sensible reformer. He understands and clearly articulates all the issues discussed so far. Most importantly, he understands that America’s future depends on education reform. As a friend of the president he has considerable latitude in pressing ahead. Now, Mr. Duncan is an appointed member of the administration and not himself an elected leader; yet he acts with the approval of the president. Which is to say that at least some key Democrats, starting from the very top, truly understand the urgency of basic reform. This being the case, even in this fractured political climate, it is not unthinkable to reach some kind of bipartisan agreement on drastic education overhaul.

Merit should go to any party that will fight to make America once again a genuine Opportunity Society

Be that as it may, a sincere pro-children fight aimed at reformulating and reorganizing public education would be good for both parties and ultimately very good for improved social cohesion and renewed faith in America as a true Opportunity Society that really gives a chance to all.

Properly crafted and properly presented, either as a party program or as a bipartisan initiative, this reform plan could show to the world that America can become once again inclusive and pro-minorities –as minority children are those who end suffering the most from this systemic national under performance– while at the same time pursuing business and economic excellence.

If sincerely believed and embraced, a national education reform campaign could be an innovative way to show support for the common people in America and for their legitimate aspirations to social advancement, while at the same time supporting business and national economic excellence. And all this would be achieved through the delivery of a valuable service rather than welfare checks. A welcome change.

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